Here are a few stats that say the Portland Trail Blazers should be a mediocre team: they hold the slimmest positive schedule-adjusted point differential in the league at 0.16; they are the only team above .500 to outperform their Pythagorean W-L by three or more games; they have a defensive rating of 115.9, the second-worst in the NBA; and, finally, injuries have cost them third-most win shares in the league, per Man Games Lost.
Yet they are not a mediocre team, not even close, and all this math adds up to a fart in the wind because the Blazers overperform the rest of the league in Players Named Damian Lillard On The Roster (1: Damian Lillard).
Lillard is as hot as any player in the league right now, and his Blazers have surged into fourth in the West after six straight wins, including five in seven days. What’s most impressive, however, is that his team has done all this without three starters, including its second- and third-best players. Naturally, he has iced the three most recent wins, all on the road, with huge shots.
Are you surprised by any of this? I am not. Nailing improbable game-winners from kilometers away from the hoop feels, somehow, like the norm rather than the exception for Lillard. After two series-winning walkoffs and a lifetime of game-winners, one can almost expect this sort of late-game excellence. You can reliably search “Damian Lillard (opposing team X)” and find a video of some old forgotten dagger he dropped.
Lillard’s clutch stats this season—58.8 percent from three, a 12-3 record in games within five points in the last five minutes, 82 points, all league highs—are not completely aberrant from the performances he’s put on for years, which really should make his heroics seem more remarkable, not less. At some point, the Blazers will have to play better defense (getting the starting frontcourt back will pretty much take care of this), but as long as Lillard is shooting like this, his teammates just need to keep games close so he can end them.